Gender Biases and Stereotypes- A real life case study in the Silicon Valley

Most women, as they rise to positions of power, face a bastion of stereotyping, focusing only on their gender and belittling their achievements. Read on how even stalwarts like Sheryl Sandberg also faced the same.

In 2012, at the time that SAP bought out Ariba, a much read technology investor and writer on Forbes Magazine, Eric Jackson, wrote an article captioned ”Sheryl Sandberg is the Valley’s IT Girl – much like Kim Polese”. A highly opinionated article which compared Sandberg’s social prominence and “not Camera Shy” persona that leads from the frontlines, as COO of Facebook, to that of Kim Polese.

Nearly a decade before Sandberg’s book “Lean In” made waves, Polese was known as the “superstar of the internet” and the “Madonna of the tech world”. Polese, at age 35 had successfully founded an internet company called Marimba that sold for $239 million, 15 times the venture capital raised for it and had become the golden girl of the silicon valley.

Jackson, in his scathing article went on to highlight the similarities between the two women (and there were quite a few) but the main premise of the article was that Sheryl was falling into the same trap as Polese, who, he claims, neglected internal operations of the company in favour of focusing excessively on “external Stuff” such as media and outreach. Jackson somehow thought it in his place to warn Sandberg of becoming a forgotten “has-been” just like Polese (factually incorrect because Polese continues to be on several technology boards and continues to do outstanding work in the technology space).

He advised Sandberg – “If I was a friend of Sheryl Sandberg and she asked me for my advice, I’d say: you don’t want to be the next Kim Polese. Maybe you should tone down the public appearances for a while and just keep your head down at Face book. There will always be some new Fortune Magazine cover to do, or award for being the most powerful woman executive in the world to accept. Yet, you’re ultimately going to be judged for your – and yours alone – business accomplishments. So, don’t take your eye off the ball.”

This is just one of the examples of stereotyping that women face. Since this involved high profile people it became more noteworthy, but is very much on the lines of what women face at the work place all too often. Pretty face, not much more: Jackson, in the very title of the article, calls Sheryl Sandberg an “IT girl” of the Silicon valley. According to the Collins Dictionary an “IT girl” is a loose term used to to describe a young woman who is well-known because she goes to the most fashionable places and events and knows famous people. In this context, it trivializes Sandberg’s achievements as a top executive who has earned her place in the spotlight. It objectifies her and brings focus merely to her femininity, which should rightfully be irrelevant in the face of her achievements.

Being at the right place at the right time: In the same article Jackson, has a whole paragraph dedicated to why he thinks Polese did not deserve her place on the Times magazine list of 25 most influential people. He attributes it to luck. If we look at most success stories be it Bill Gates, Warren Buffet or Steve jobs, we will have to attribute much of their success to being at the right place at the right time. But the point is that they were the right people as well, who had earned their spot. Yet, this tag is most vocally and casually attached to women leaders, taking away all the credit they deserve for their hard work and attributing their success to luck and at being at the right place at the right time.

Good catch: In the original article, Jackson had a line saying Sheryl Sandberg’s husband was ‘super smart to boot’. A line he soon removed due to the heightened back lash it received, as did the rest of the article. In this case, Sandberg was a Harvard graduate, worked at the World Bank and US treasury and was Google’s Vice President before Face book – a pedigree that is hard to match- and none of which had anything to do with her husband. Yet women, like Sandberg get stereotyped- making it seem like they got to their positions of success and power because of their association with powerful, smart men – again taking away from their efforts, brains and leadership attributes.

Eric Jackson has since issued an apology to both women and his readers for a sloppy inaccurate article. We hope that all the feedback he has received has given him the opportunity to reflect on his thought process.

If work place genders ratios are to changed one must change their mind set. Rethink their assumptions, notions , conscious and subconscious biases and let women do their jobs, with the spotlight on their Jobs and not on their gender.